Re: on co-opting impulses towards organized religion

From: Mark Walker (
Date: Fri Jul 27 2001 - 06:47:19 MDT

----- Original Message -----
From: Damien Broderick <>

> At 07:50 PM 7/26/01 -0400, Mark wrote:
> >(BTW, I see so many strawperson versions of religion attacked as
> >on this list. There are some towering intellects among believers, I wish
> >their views would be scrutinized. For example, one luminary may be found
> >here:
> >
> >
> Good point, but the example is odd (I say after the briefest visit to Dr
> Plantinga's homepage).

It is an exaggeration to say that Plantinga is single-handedly responsible
for making Christian analytic philosophy academically respectable. What is
surpising is how small of an exaggeration it is.

> Regard this strange assertion:
> ========================
> A letter from Plantinga, a philosophy professor, and Huston Smith, a
> religion professor at Berkeley, moved the National Association of Biology
> Teachers to remove anti-religious language from its statement on
> For years, the association's official position read: "The diversity of
> on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal,
> unpredictable and natural process."
> Recently, after Plantinga and Smith objected that "unsupervised" and
> "impersonal" go beyond scientific evidence, the association dropped those
> words.
> "I was a little surprised, actually, but I was very pleased," says
> Plantinga, a member of South Bend Christian Reformed Church who came to
> Notre Dame from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, 15 years ago. "It's a
> but significant little thing in the whole debate.
> "There is so much heat in this area -- people's faith, people's ideology
> involved-- that often straightforward, rational discussion doesn't work
> well." Plantinga and Smith are among a growing number of Christian
> scholars, including scientists, who challenge what they consider the
> unscientific presuppositions of modern culture with respect to evolution.
> "I think the main thing to see about it is that it is by no means merely a
> scientific doctrine at all," Plantinga says. "It is about naturalism vs.
> theism, naturalism vs. American religious belief, naturalism vs.
> "They think science has shown that human beings are not really created by
> God. That's not true at all. That's not science. That's theology. It's bad
> theology because it's theology confused with science."
> That's the point he and Smith argued successfully about the biology
> association's position.
> "A good bit of it was theology, not science," Plantinga says. "There's no
> way, simply on the basis of physical science, that you could have
> discovered that the process is unsupervised or impersonal.
> "That's not part of evolutionary theory as science at all. We wondered why
> it was stated as a piece of science."
> Unlike those who object to evolutionary theories on religious grounds,
> Plantinga and others do not insist that the Genesis account of creation
> must be taken literally.
> "I'm somebody who thinks God created the world," Plantinga says. "I'm not
> sure that's what the Lord intends to teach in that part of Genesis. I
> know exactly how he did it. It's possible he did it by evolution."
> ==================================
> So the bacteria changing rapidly in human bodies within the span of a few
> decades might be doing so *under the personal supervision of a deity*? Or
> is it under the personal supervision of the devil?

I think Plantinga's view is that God has different levels of involvement:
God might be happy to let the clock of nature wind-down on its own for the
most part while occassionally interceding for the occassion miracle, or
showstopper like Jesus. Thus, it is consistent with his view that Bacteria
might evolve in humans without God directly supervising this process.

 Cf. his whimsical
> definition:
> < alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre
> claim. "His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency
> his listeners." >
Just to be clear, this is not his own definition of himself, it is in
Dennett's humour book.

> I assume Dr Alvin P. does find this a bizarre assertion;

This is a little unfair, or at least misleading. Remember the definition is
meant to be humorous. This is a little complicated but I will try to boil it
down: Plantinga wrote a free will defence in response to the problem of
evil. He was responding to the charge that there is a logical contradiction
between the assertion that God exists and the presence of evil in this
world. He takes the point of a theodicy (he calls it a 'defense') to
demonstrate the (mere) logical POSSIBILITY that God and evil might exist. In
the course of this discussion Plantinga suggested that it is POSSIBLE that
natural evil (earth quakes, etc.) are the result of Satanic agency. I agree.
It is possible. It just seems to me that it is highly improbable. But this
would not affect the logic of Plantiga's argument. One of the most common
criticisms of Plantinga free will defence is that it does not go far enough:
a theodicy should explain why God allows evil, not simply say that it is
logically possible. (I actually think that his defense doesn't allow him to
wriggle out of the contradiction).

>I regard his own
> assertion--that we might any longer regard stochastic evolutionary
> processes as under
> the guiding hand of a god--exactly as ridiculous. I'm ashamed that the
> National Association of Biology Teachers caved in.
I was suprised they caved in. But then again, there are a surprising number
of religious scientist. I think I read some stats on this in the last few
years. Perhaps it was in Scientific American. (I only read that rag in the
grocery store line-up).

> But maybe Dr Plantinga has more intelligent things to say elsewhere. Got a
> specific paper you'd recommend, Mark?

No, just read his entire corpus. I think you can get a reasonable idea of
his views on evolution from the following:

I saw him give a version of this talk "An Evolutionary Argument Against
Naturalism" (I wish the full thing was available)
a couple of years ago at the Canadian Philosophical Association where he
gave the Plenary address. (He was very funny. The guy that introduced him
rambled off 18 prestigious universities where Plantinga has been a "visiting
distinguished professor". Plantinga got up and the first thing he said was
that being at 18 universities makes it sound like he couldn't hold down a

> (Or am I missing a meta-point, and
> you're poking fun at this `luminary'?)
No, you are not. We know (or more judiciously, believe) that Plantinga's
conclusion is false. So either the logic of his argument is faulty, or one
or more premise is false. Since Plantinga is pretty handy with logic, our
best bet is that we disagree about the premises. But, having said this,
Plantinga seems to me as rational as any atheist I know (and in fact, more
so than most atheists that I know). My point is that to say that religion is
irrational because some or even many of its adherents are not as rational as
they might be does not show that all adherents must be. This is the strategy
of arguing "guilt by association"--something that first year of uni is
supposed to help us get over. I am not particularly bothered by the fact
that many of those who are less than ideally (humanly) rational--perhaps
through no fault of their own--believe in the religious hypothesis, indeed,
this is perhaps quite understandable. It is when I see enormously
intellectually gifted philosophers and scientists believing in the religious
that I am unsettled. For then the hypothesis that it must be a failure of
rationality on their part looks a lot more questionable. Mark.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Oct 12 2001 - 14:39:57 MDT